Today’s Mainstream Media Exist to Disseminate Approved Thought
The most telling sign of the decline of mainstream news media (MSM) is that they themselves have often become the story. Those who hate them will rejoice. But we may learn useful things by examining the causes and asking what the future holds.
First some stats: CNN’s ratings are down 27 percent from last year, and MSNBC’s are down 23 percent.1 Print media have probably fared worse. A recent study showed that in the United States, a country of 332 million people, no newspaper has a print circulation greater than one million. Only nine U.S. newspapers today have more than 100,000 subscribers, and over a quarter have ceased to publish in the last 15 years.2
A related, more ominous decline is in public trust. In 2021, public trust in media, as surveyed by Gallup, plunged to the second-lowest point ever recorded, only four percentage points above the all-time low in 2016.3 The United States ranks last in 46 countries surveyed for trust in media.4
This year, Pew Research found that 65 percent of nearly 12,000 journalists surveyed felt that they did a good job on the most important stories. But only 35 percent of the public agreed.5 Thirty percent is a pretty significant gap, and of course it shows up in profitability. CNN’s profits, for example, are expected to dip below $1 billion for the first time since 2016.6 Newspapers are hurting, too.7
To account for the decline, some observers cite the fact that journalists as a group are much more progressive than the public. A study published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that both CNN and MSNBC made a radical left turn relative to the public between 2016 and 2021.8 That fact doubtless accounts for some famous recent news flubs—for example, the 2019 Covington boys debacle. Teen Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky was unjustly cast as a racist in a story that collapsed under the weight of video evidence—yet experienced journalists doubled down afterward on their shattered story.9
At roughly the same time, the widely publicized “attack” on gay black actor Jussie Smollett produced much support and sympathy for Smollett from prominent politicians, even though red flags emerged almost immediately. As one analyst noted, “Being the first to rip America bears political fruit; waiting for the whole story often earns public castigation for insufficient sensitivity.”10 Well yes, but the credibility of a politician, whose political leanings are known and openly acknowledged, may not be damaged the way the media’s is when they appear politically correct but gullible.
Then there was the Kyle Rittenhouse story. Mainstream journalists were castigated even in mainstream outlets for their failure to get simple facts straight with respect to the controversial Wisconsin case: the coverage “led to multiple corrections and considerable mockery as the reckoning over misleading coverage of [Rittenhouse’s] trial continue[d].”11
Sometimes MSM misrepresentations directly affect the public. During the Covid pandemic, the MSM treated the “lab leak” hypothesis, which proposed that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab, as a conspiracy theory. However, credible assessors of the evidence found it to be a reasonable hypothesis, though difficult to research in a closed society like China.12
Similarly, a physician recently pointed to the way major media suddenly “discovered” the harm done by many months of school closures during that period: “The media that claim to hold the powerful accountable instead chose to aid and abet those in power by promoting narratives that suited their own ideological assumptions.”13 Specifically, the media gave every evidence of willfully refusing to cover the damage until it was yesterday’s news.
The big question at this point isn’t, Why doesn’t the MSM get it right? but Why doesn’t it matter to the MSM whether or not they get it right? Here’s why: it doesn’t matter anymore because their role has changed. Informing the public is no longer the priority it once was.
Heralds of Approved Thought
Having watched this story unfold over the past fifty years, I find the most persuasive explanation of their new role to be the one offered by independent journalist Matt Taibbi:
The [New York] Times has become a place where the public often learns about key facts, pressing international controversies, or trends in American thought only once these have been deemed suitable for public consumption by an unseen higher audience. . . . Along with companion outlets like the Washington Post and The Atlantic . . . the paper in this sense fulfills the same function that Izvestia once served in the Soviet Union, telling us little or even less than nothing about breaking news events . . . but giving us comprehensive, if often coded, portraits of the thinking of the leadership class.14
This is a far cry from four or five decades ago, when average citizens needed the media for the weather, sports scores, Help Wanted, Apartments for Rent, the start time for the parade, whether the beach was closed, or the coroner’s verdict on the mayor’s sudden death at a council meeting—as well as for national and international news. Those things are all online now, from public and private sources, and mostly free.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so the media, no longer much needed by average citizens, found a niche as the heralds of the social (and increasingly global) elite. The all-out support, for example, for disgraced ex-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was scandalous enough to attract attention and criticism even from the Columbia Review of Journalism (conveniently after the fact).15 A meaningful but undiscussed fact is that taking Cuomo down might be a career-limiting move for a journalist in an era when media mainly serve the very establishment Cuomo represented.
A significant related change is that, by and large, mainstream media are much less supportive of free speech than they used to be. They now tend to associate free speech with bad things (bigotry, for example), rather than with the needed function of presenting challenges to the establishment for whom they speak.
Predictably, successful politicians now find that they can afford to ignore or even disrespect news media. Recently, Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida simply shut media out of a Republican convention, the 2022 Sunshine Summit. Vanity Fair captured the mood:
Many local and national mainstream outlets were unable to get press credentials, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, including the Miami Herald, Politico, Florida Politics, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. A Florida wire service, the Wall Street Journal, and Business Insider were among the few mainstream outlets allowed to cover at least some parts of the weekend.16
Admittedly, DeSantis and Rubio have a history of receiving unsympathetic coverage from the MSM, yet while Democratic figures likely wouldn’t shut the MSM out, they would be unwise to rely solely on MSM reach and credibility as a campaign strategy. Bluntly, MSM loyalty isn’t worth what it used to be.
Another outcome is that government can increasingly order MSM around. From an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, we learn that “Glenn Nowak, a former head of media relations at the CDC, who held various communication positions at the agency starting in the early nineties, says each subsequent administration has become more restrictive on journalists’ talking to scientists and experts without oversight from authorities.”17 The administrations can afford to take this stance because a much smaller proportion of the public finds information from the MSM essential.
The internet, which has fueled the problem, also offers the average citizen alternatives. A number of independent, internet-driven media outlets are springing up. Project Veritas, for example, is widely hated by MSM, essentially for doing the very exposés that the MSM would themselves have done in the 1960s but not today. Meanwhile, independent news media like Epoch Times and Canada’s Rebel News and Post Millennial are expanding and hiring abroad. Much news is also broken or handled by blogs, reddits, and so forth. Tellingly, the Babylon Bee has replaced most late-night comedians as the target of censorship—essentially for lampooning establishment protégés that those late-nighters would never touch.
Going forward, we can develop our own news feeds. If you don’t want your internet searches to be dominated by Google, there are many other search engines to choose from, including some that do not track you. Those who read a lot can use news aggregators to shape their own feeds. And, increasingly, widely read journalists are simply putting out their own newsletters at venues like Substack, where a small fee gets you the news and views you value.
There never was a Golden Age of media; rather, different types of media are suited to different ages. With the MSM proving more unsuited to this age with each passing year, we all need to be aware of and use viable alternatives.
1. Joshua Young, “CNN ratings collapse as network looks for ‘new revenue’—including ‘extending’ the brand in China,” Post Millennial (Aug. 4, 2022): https://tinyurl.com/bdfx8jph.
2. Charles Lipson, “The Decline and Fall of Newspapers,” RealClearPolitics (Aug. 4, 2022): https://tinyurl.com/55rkmnh8.
3. Megan Brenan, “Americans’ Trust in Media Dips to Second Lowest on Record,” Gallup (Oct. 7, 2021): https://tinyurl.com/45uhvrdk.
4. Rick Edmonds, “US ranks last among 46 countries in trust in media, Reuters Institute report finds,” Poynter (June 24, 2021): https://tinyurl.com/2tm29nfp.
5. Jeffrey Gottfried et al., “Journalists Sense Turmoil in Their Industry Amid Continued Passion for Their Work,” Pew Research (June 14, 2022): https://tinyurl.com/2p9uaeb4; Joe Concha, “The media bubble is real: Study shows massive disconnect between journalists, public,” The Hill (June 22, 2022): https://tinyurl.com/mvsn39x8.
6. Benjamin Mullin, “Profits Slump at CNN as Ratings Plummet,” New York Times (Aug. 2, 2022): https://tinyurl.com/yc8cjwhc.
7. Brad Adgate, “Newspapers Have Been Struggling and Then Came the Pandemic,” Forbes (Aug. 20, 2021): https://tinyurl.com/bdh5nayf.
8. Erik Wemple, “CNN, MSNBC took sharp left turns during Trump’s presidency, and even Fox moved a little leftwards,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Aug. 7, 2022): https://tinyurl.com/pw89h2tx. The paper is open access: https://tinyurl.com/2e33v2vr.
9. Robby Soave, “A Year Ago, the Media Mangled the Covington Catholic Story. What Happened Next Was Even Worse,” Reason (Jan. 21, 2020): https://tinyurl.com/mr2u9pvt.
10. Ben Shapiro, “3 Lessons from the Jussie Smollett Hoax,” RealClearPolitics (Feb. 20, 2019): https://tinyurl.com/wapje2ed.
11. David Rutz, “False media reporting that Rittenhouse transported rifle ‘across state lines’ leads to corrections, mockery,” Fox News (Nov. 23, 2021): foxnews.com/media/false-media-reporting-rittenhouse-state-lines.
12. Heather Zeiger, “Lab Leak Theory Vindicated: What That Means for Fighting Covid-19,” Mind Matters News (June 10, 2021): https://tinyurl.com/2vytymud.
13. Christine Rosen, “The Mainstream Media Damaged Our Children,” Commentary (July/August 2022): https://tinyurl.com/4ewtwv3y.
14. Matt Taibbi, “The New Kremlinology: Reading the New York Times,” Substack (July 12, 2022):https://tinyurl.com/5xke5ej3.
15. Ross Barkan, “The media’s role in the Cuomo myth,” Columbia Journalism Review (Aug. 18, 2021): https://tinyurl.com/4e9bvn9b.
16. Charlotte Klein, “Will Republicans Shut Out the Press in 2024?”, Vanity Fair (July 26, 2022): https://tinyurl.com/ctteeefw.
17. Kathryn Foxhall, “The Growing Culture of Censorship by PIO,” Columbia Journalism Review (Aug. 3, 2022): https://tinyurl.com/443nycxc.
is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #63, Winter 2022 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo63/the-signaling-class